DNA data bill aims to help cops

AkCLU worries it could curb privacy rights

Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Legislation to expand the state's DNA database to include genetic material from all convicted felons would put Alaska in line with national trends, but civil libertarians worry the information could be misused in the future.

The database, in operation since 1996, includes information on convicted felons who have committed burglary or crimes against a person, such as assault or sexual assault. Under House Bill 49, people convicted of crimes such as felony shoplifting or felony driving while intoxicated also would be included.

Felonies are more serious crimes than misdemeanors or infractions, and include offenses such as murder and repeated DWIs.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Tom Anderson, an Anchorage Republican, has said expanding the database would solve more crimes and reduce wrongful accusations, arrests and convictions. The bill has been approved by the House and all assigned Senate committees.

The database contains about 3,500 profiles; 3,200 from convicted offenders and 312 crime scene samples, said Chris Beheim, the director of the Alaska State Crime Lab. Of the 312 samples, 165 are unidentified. The rest matched suspects in the crimes, Beheim said.

The state had its first database "hit" in 2001. Crime scene evidence matched a 1998 sexual assault in Anchorage to an assault that happened the previous year, Beheim said. The perpetrator eventually was caught. Since then, investigators have scored 29 more hits. Half have linked convicted offenders to crime scene evidence, and the others demonstrated two or more unsolved crimes were related.

All 50 states have DNA databases, and 26 include all felons, Beheim said. He said the passage of the bill would raise the number of hits significantly.

"States that have expanded their DNA databases, their hit rate has shown dramatic increases," he said. "Oregon went all-felons last year; their hit rate went up 400 percent."

But some argue that with dramatic results come dramatic risks.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union is worried about the possibility for abuse of the genetic material. When a cheek swab is processed, laboratory technicians remove only a tiny portion of the DNA chain for inclusion in the database, just enough to identify a person. But the lab keeps the swab, which contains a great deal more information, indefinitely.

"That drop of saliva contains information about up to 4,000 genetic conditions or diseases, possibly about substance abuse tendencies, paternity, ethnicity. All kinds of really personal, private stuff about me and everyone who's related to me by blood," said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the AkCLU.

The AkCLU urged legislators to add an amendment to the bill that would require destruction of the DNA sample within "a reasonable period of time" after the information had been entered into the database.

"This is really powerful information for them to have. We're only at the tip of the iceberg of what we'll be able to tell from that drop of saliva," Rudinger said. "It could be possible ... that the government will have all these samples of DNA from people and that technology will allow them to determine if there is an aggression gene, which at this point is just a theory."

Beheim said the lab has to keep the cheek swabs so staff can reanalyze them if there is a hit. No amendment has been added to the bill to require destruction of the samples. But the bill does include penalties for state officials who misuse the DNA evidence, making unlawful use of samples a Class C felony.

The bill, if passed, would be retroactive, requiring samples from all convicted felons who are incarcerated or on probation. The existing database includes people who were convicted after Jan. 1, 1996.

The bill is awaiting scheduling for a Senate floor vote.

Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.

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